How does art and installations become a part of the sublime? How can a viewer be transported into another frame of mind or another space, how can a viewer have a complete multi-sensory experience within one piece of artwork? These are the questions that will be explored throughout this essay, considering both artists and their practices such as Bruce Munro, Kevin Schmidt and Olafur Eliasson; as well as academic sources, “Sublime Constructions,” by Harald Fricke, Joseph Addison’s “The Pleasures of the Imagination,” “New Media Art and the Technological Sublime,” by Ksenia Fedorova, as well as considering other articles discussing these artists and their work in relationship with the sublime.
Firstly, what is the sublime and how does it function within the art world? Ksenia Fedorova introduces the idea of the sublime in her article, “New Media Art and the Technological Sublime.” She begins, “The concept of the sublime is one of the cornerstones of classical aesthetic theory, an iconic meme of the logic of ‘big narratives’ and essentialist constructions. Up until the end of the eighteenth century, however, it went hand in hand with another category (similarly dismissed today thanks to mass cultural industry production), the beautiful. The differences in definition developed only in the eighteenth century, where the sublime came to be understood as something transcendent, superior, exceeding the bounds of an ‘own’ – that is, familiar and explicable.” As Fedorova points out, the sublime can be an altered state of mind, which is a capable feat in today’s art world due to new technologies that allow artists to take ideas out into the field and create works outside, not just in gallery or studio spaces. New technology also allows for artists create work within a gallery that may contain elements of the outside or another space; both of these ideas allow for artists to create a space that will guide the audience to experience of sense of the sublime or transcendence. The opportunity for artists to expand installation art in relation to new technology has also had a huge impact on the art world and audiences, installations have become bigger and, thanks to technology, have become completely immersive and multi-sensory which allows for the audience to experience sublimity.
One artist that explores the sublime in the sense of transcendence for his audience is Bruce Munro. Munro is a British installation artist, who studied fine art at Bristol Polytechnic. His practice is focused on large scale immersive light projects, which are inspired by music, literature and human nature. The longest series of light installations to date is titled, “Field of Light,” which began in the UK in 2008 and has traveled as far as Arizona, US, in 2015. He took up this project after visiting the Red Desert in central Australia, he states in his biography that, “There is a compelling connection to the energy, heat and brightness of the desert landscape. Field of Light is an embodiment of this experience. I wanted to create an illuminated field of stems that, like the dormant seed in a dry desert, would burst into bloom at dusk with gentle rhythms of light under a blazing blanket of stars.” Munro’s installations allow for his audience to experience a multiple sensory experience of sight, hearing, smell of the outdoors and touch of the natural environment, which Munro encourages the audience to partake in, as well as the installation as an art piece. This multiple sensory experience, in relation to the sublime, becomes almost spiritual in the sense it allows the audience to slow down and stay within the piece for as long as they choose. It also transports the viewer to another space or state of mind outside of the garden or forest they might be in. The large scale installations allow the audience to experience darkness and vastness within the forest, which can be an uncomfortable setting for most, and perhaps scary, however it is also contrasted with bright, colorful lights, and music, both are considered happy experience for individuals. The vastness of the forest setting also asks the audience to expand their view beyond what is in front of them and take in the space as a whole, something Joseph Addison focuses on in his “Spectator” articles on “The Pleasures of the Imagination,” he states, “Our imagination loves to be filled by an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity. We are flung into a pleasing astonishment at such unbounded views, and feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the apprehension of them. The mind of man naturally hates everything that looks like a restraint upon it, and is apt to fancy itself under a sort of confinement, when the sight is pent up in a narrow compass, and shortened on every side by the neighborhood of walls or mountains. On the contrary, a spacious horizon is an image of liberty, where the eye has room to expatiate at large on the immensity of its views.” Munro has created scenes in which the audience can expand their view to a wide amount of the forest, rather than viewing an installation work that is right in front of them. Viewers must move through the work and look at the space as a whole to take in this vastness, viewers become exhilarated by large scale immersive views.
Atlanta Botanical Garden GA USA 2015 Bruce Munro
Olafur Eliasson is and Icelandic-Danish artist who is well-known for his sculptures, site specific installations that may contain light, water and air temperature to change the viewer’s experience from simply viewing to a full body experience. One his best-known architectural interventions was titled “The Weather Project,” which was exhibited in 2003 in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. This installation consisted of hundreds of warm lights that created a half sun, which was placed at the top of the wall, and was reflected in the large mirror installed on the ceiling, as well as mirrors installed on the side walls of the hall, as a final piece of the work, Eliasson installed a mist machine. “The Weather Project” was considered an architectural intervention within the modern museum, Brian O’Doherty discusses the idea of intervention within modern situations whilst being interviewed by Mark Godfrey for his article, “Public Spectacle.” O’Doherty questions, “Why are people drawn to the modern museum? The architectural phenomenon perhaps. Is it the obsolescence of various formal avenues to
transcendence? Has the museum become a kind of pseudo-spiritual place or a fortress in which something is enacted every day, some kind of sacrifice?” (Brian O’Doherty). Eliasson’s Weather Project has accomplished this architectural phenomenon and sense of transcendence that O’Doherty discusses, viewers did not simply view the work but were invited to lay down on the floor and experience the heat. The mist machine also had an effect on the participants as well as the feeling of the space, the audience clearly experiences the physical feeling of the mist and being hit by the mist. However, both the audience and the space are affected by the mist machine because it creates a refraction of light, closely resembling a haze, within the space which was darkened except for Eliasson’s sun installation, this psychedelic effect is discussed in Harald Fricke’s “Sublime Constructions.” He discusses the effect on the viewers, most groping their way through the space because of the lack of physical and virtual elements, “The imitation of the sun is accompanied by an endless expanse of mirrors which hang halfway down from the ceiling. In addition to spatial blackness Eliasson has filled the interior of the Turbine Hall with an artificial haze which diffuses the light. The consequence is an amazing mix of dazzle and eclipse with the viewer having to grope his way through the space with nothing to hold on to either visually or physically. The mirrored ceiling doubles, enlarges and reverses the physical volume; the haze makes the space even more impenetrable. In a further paradox the special sodium light bulbs filter out certain parts of the color spectrum so that there is less retinal information available to the eye than there would be with a whole color picture. As a result, the harder you look, the less you see. This creates a truly psychedelic effect, a blur of real and hallucinated space involving all the senses.” The Turbine Hall became a space in which viewers were no longer in the space of the modern museum, but rather a sublime space of the beauty of the sun, refreshing spray of the mist in contrast with extreme heat and a blinding haze that took over the space, forcing viewers to use their sense of touch, smell and hearing to find their way further into the room or out of the room.
The Weather Project Turbine Hall Tate Modern London 2003 Olafur Eliasson
Finally, an artist who explores the beauty of the forest using fog machines, Kevin Schmidt. Schmidt is a Canadian based photographer who holds a BFA from Emily Carr University, and is currently living, practicing and working in Vancouver, teaching at Emily Carr University. His work celebrates nature, specifically landscapes, and photographing different interventions within the landscape. One of his widely known works is a photographic series and installation from 2004 titled, “Fog Study.” “Fog Study” was a set of large scale slide projections that eventually became light jet photographs. Within this series Schmidt set up fog machines in the forest and shot during dusk/nightfall. Similarly with Bruce Munro’s work, Schmidt uses the forest as a space of beauty, yet shooting at night and adding a fog machine adds an element of uncomfortableness for the participants viewing the projections. When participating in the installations of the projections, viewers are able to stand in the frame of the image and project themselves into the forest, viewers become positioned in the landscape creating shadows, which exist within a forest setting. Even for those experiencing the photographic series later on, in display in such places as Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery, Presentation House, and Artspeak; there is a sense of sublimity through the beauty of the forest from the lush green colors to the texture of the trees, in contrast with the dark black blocking the background and the fog creeping through the trees into the foreground.
Fog Study 2004 Kevin Schmidt
“The artist is an inventor of spaces.” (George Didi-Huberman). Artists like Schmidt, Eliasson and Munro have accomplished this invention or transformation of spaces into a multi-sensory experience through their installation pieces, their work doesn’t shape what we want to see but rather asks the audience how do we see, how do we participate and how do we experience? These artists use their multi-sensory work to transcend the viewer into a space of sublimity, experiencing something joyful or beautiful and contrasting it with an element of uncomfortableness or darkness.
Addison, Joseph. “The Pleasures of the Imagination.” Spectator. No. 411, June 21st 1712.
Fricke, Harald. “Sublime Constructions.” Modern Painters 16.4 (2003): 92-95
Fedorova, Ksenia. “New Media Art and the Technological Sublime.” Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis 67 (2012): 33-44 Academic Search Complete.
Godfrey, Mark. “An Interview with Brian O’Doherty.” Frieze Magazine Issue 80. January-February 2004.